Kraft Foods could face a lawsuit for deceptive marketing, which claims that the US giant is mislabeling a fruit juice product as 'all natural'.
Filed by a Florida resident and backed by consumer advocacy group Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the suit hinges its attack on the presence of high fructose corn syrup in the drink.
According to the plaintiff, Kraft is using the 'all natural' claim on its Capri Sun juices to trick consumers into thinking the product is healthier than it actually is. The claim also encourages people to confuse the "almost juice-less drink" with real fruit juice, said CSPI.
Filed in state court in Palm Beach County, the suit is the latest indication of mounting pressure on food and beverage makers, with long-accepted marketing practices increasingly being called into question by a more active body of public health groups as well as more aware and more demanding consumers.
Capri Sun, which was developed in 1981 and is marketed as a lunchbox beverage, has become the nation's best-selling foil pouch brand. Since its introduction, the product has been labeled as 'all natural'.
But the company is now being embroiled in a fierce debate surrounding the controversial sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Although derived from a natural compound - corn starch - HFCS has been accused of not qualifying as an 'all-natural' ingredient because its chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in the manufacturing process.
The problem lies in the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not provide a definition of the term 'natural'.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which sets out regulations for meat and poultry products, states that products can only carry a 'natural' claim if they contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients, and if they are minimally processed. And although the FDA has been petitioned to adopt the USDA's definition of the term, current FDA policy simply states that a food can be considered 'natural' if "nothing artificial or synthetic" has been added to it that would not normally be expected to be in that food.
The US Natural Ingredient Resource Center devised its own definition of natural ingredients in 2005, after inviting comments from the food industry.
It said natural ingredients should be present in or produced by nature, produced using "minimal processing" (using methods possible in a household kitchen or on a farm), and "directly extracted" using simple methods.
And according to CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, "high fructose corn syrup isn't something you could cook up from a bushel of corn in your kitchen, unless you happen to be equipped with centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns, and buckets of enzymes."
But the lawsuit threatening Kraft may well prove fruitless.
The company said in a statement yesterday that it already has plans "well under way" to change the packaging for Capri Sun.
""Kraft Foods has been working for about a year to reformulate its regular CapriSun beverages and redesign the product's packaging. The new packaging, which isscheduled to go into production in about two weeks, will say that Capri Sun contains 'Noartificial colors, flavors or preservatives,'" said Marc Firestone, Kraft's executive vice president for corporate and legal affairs.
The company said this new product description, which will result in the removal of the phrase 'all natural' from the packaging, "resonated wellwith consumers."
The move against Kraft follows the threat of a lawsuit last year against soda firm Cadbury Schweppes. In May, CSPI said it would file a suit against the firm for marketing its newly re-formulated 7UP as '100% natural', despite the presence of HFCS.
CSPI agreed to a request from Cadbury to discuss settlement possibilities before a lawsuit is filed. The discussions are continuing, but CSPI said is likely to sue if the company does not agree to changes in the near future.
Last year, the Sugar Association filed a petition with the FDA requesting the establishment of a clear definition for the use of the term 'natural' on food and beverage product labels, claiming that the current lack of a formal definition for the term has resulted in misleading claims and consumer confusion.
According to recent studies, 'all-natural' is the most frequent 'positive' new product category. In 2004, the Natural Marketing Institute reported that 63 percent of consumers have a preference for foods and beverages marketed as natural. Food sales in natural product stores reached a reported $11.4bn in 2003.
In 1993, the FDA said it had not included a definition of the term in its Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) "because of resource limitations and other agency priorities."
However, it did concede that the use of the term on food labels is "of considerable interest to consumers and industry" , adding that "because of the widespread use of this term, and the evidence that consumers regard many uses of this term as noninformative, the agency would consider establishing a definition."